North Atlantic Right Whale

Its name indicates why this species is now the most endangered whale in North Atlantic waters, having been the "right" whale for whalers in the past. These large, slow-swimming whales are often found on the surface, so they were considered just “right” for hunting by whalers. The mouth yielded an excellent supply of baleen (whalebone) and the blubber produced a large quantity of oil. The hunting was so relentless that only a few hundred are left in the northern hemisphere.

The huge head of North Atlantic right whale makes up about one-third of the overall body size. The mouth is one of the widest in the animal kingdom.

Each winter, North Atlantic right whales migrate from cold northern waters to warmer areas in the south, where the females give birth. In the Atlantic, the whales move from the waters off Nova Scotia and Labrador to Florida. Pacific whales summer in the Bering Sea off Alaska, before heading to wintering grounds on the western coast of Russia.

Despite being protected from whaling fleets since 1935, the North Atlantic right whales’s population has continued to decline according to most estimates. There are now probably no more than 300 in the ocean, and relatively few calves are being reported. The underlying cause is probably their diet. North Atlantic right whales are highly specialized planktonic feeders, and a decline in the availability of these microscopic marine creatures in the areas where the whales occur means they are short of food.

Distribution: Restricted to the North Atlantic Ocean, off the eastern seaboard of North America, and in European waters from the Iberian Peninsula to Scandinavia.

Habitat: Shallow coastal water.

Weight: Up to 63.5 tonnes (70 tons); females are heavier.

Length: 14 - 17 m (46 - 56 ft).

Maturity: 6 - 10 years.

Gestation Period: About 365 days; females give birth once every 3 - 5 years.

Breeding: 1; weaning occurs at 8 - 12 months.

Diet: Use their baleen plates to filter zooplankton, including euphausiids and copepods out of the ocean water.

Lifespan: Likely to be 50 - 100 years.

Status: Critically endangered.

Calf length

Newborn calves measure up to 6 m (20 ft) and may double their length in a year.

Identifying the species

The "blow" of water is a distinctive V-shape because of the spacing of the two blowholes.

Calf weight

Young of this species already weigh about 900 kg (1 ton) at birth.

Callosities

These white swellings identify the whales, and are usually evident on the head. They are huge colonies of whale lice.

Mouth

The mouth is long and arches upwards, above the eyes.

INDIVIDUAL RECOGNITION

Breaking the surface — called breaching — allows individuals to be identified by their callosities.

The testicles of the male are the largest of any creature, weighing up to 500 kg (1100 lb); mating occurs in winter.

Gallery of North Atlantic Right Whale